Soil Sisters (New Society Publishers, 2016), by Lisa Kivirist plows new ground and provides a wealth of invaluable information and resources for fledgling female farming entrepreneurs. As women in agriculture are sprouting up in record numbers, but they face a host of distinct challenges and opportunities. This excerpt introduces you to entrepreneurs that are customizing tools to fit women so they may work more efficiently.
You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Soil Sisters.
Growing the Organic Market, One Woman at a Time
“Right now is the best time ever for women interested in farming and passionate about organic and sustainable agriculture to explore launching an operation,” shares Faye Jones, executive director of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). “Between the good-food market momentum and the long menu of training and educational options out there, plus increasing opportunities to connect with and learn from and support other women farmers, you can readily set yourself up for success in a way that wasn’t possible when I started farming three decades ago.”
Jones first connected with organic farming at 19 when she visited her boyfriend’s family’s dairy farm. “It was a wonderful, magical experience with cows, pastures, barns,” she says, beaming. Inspired, Jones enrolled in agricultural courses but soon grew disappointed as they focused only on conventional farming with heavy mechanical input and toxic chemicals. Jones dropped out of college for her own “learning by doing” curriculum that included farm apprenticeships, learning from mentors, and attending conferences. “The organic movement was such a young baby back then that when I use the word ‘conferences’ they were nothing like what you picture today.
In the 1980s, these were more like reasons to get together and share knowledge. We were all in the same boat, learning together as we farmed and collaboratively sharing together.” In the early 1980s, Jones started farming vegetables and flowers on rented parcels that were part of existing organic farms selling to the Minneapolis area. “This worked out great because I had mentors on site that I could keep learning from.” In 1989, Jones purchased her farm in west central Wisconsin and started moving toward specializing in cut flowers. “Twenty years ago, the timing was ideal to get into flowers, as you started seeing flowers in places other than a flower shop. Upscale grocery stores sold bouquets that featured blooms other than carnations and roses, and people began viewing flowers more as a gift to give any time, rather than just for Valentine’s Day or when someone is sick,” she recalls.
“Also, when I did my books at the end of the year, I quickly realized I made a lot more profit off the flowers for the time I invested versus the vegetables.” Still, as a beginning farmer in this new flower market, Jones knew she needed to amp up her marketing and customer service mojo to create a viable sales base. “I approached food cooperatives in the Twin Cities and made it super easy for them to say yes and sell my flowers. I’d bring the bouquets directly to the store in plastic sleeves, labeled and ready to sell from clean black plastic buckets I provided.”
Jones wisely also offered the bouquets on consignment for the first two weeks to get her foot in the door. “They couldn’t lose with me because for those first couple of deliveries I’d take back anything they didn’t sell,” she adds. Business grew, and within a few years she needed to turn down accounts as she still wanted to run Morning Glory Farm as a solo operation and have time for her daughter, Nina, whom she was raising as a single mom.
Meanwhile, Jones kept learning. She kept going back to that organic farming conference in the Midwest, which was now growing from the original 90 attendees who attended in 1989. “I was shocked that an organic conference like this didn’t serve organic food,” remembers Jones. Not one to just vent and leave, Jones took on organizing the food, which opened up a path she never imagined. “Yes, the food tasted better, but what happened for me personally is I realized I had a knack for organizational leadership. I’ve always had this life dream of wanting to help change what farming is all about in America, and working with a nonprofit gave me the platform to do this.”
The next chapter of Jones’s life started calling, as she became more involved with MOSES. She became the first paid staff at MOSES 17 years ago and today still leads the organization. In 2005 she traded farming for full-time work at this nonprofit. MOSES runs the organic conference, which serves over 3,500 enthusiastic attendees. “We like to call it the largest organic gathering in the known galaxy,” she says with a grin. And the organic food is great, too.
“Identify what you need personally in your life and match that with the right situation,” advises Jones. “Like my experience with getting into the flower market early on, keep your eye on what areas might be untapped right now.” Jones advises against blindly following established market routes. “While farmers’ markets make up core sales outlets for many small-scale growers, do your research before committing to one because increasingly metro areas may be saturated with too many markets too close to each other.” Or think about alternatives such as sales to restaurants or schools.
Growing the organic and sustainable agriculture movement involves a lot of different roles to play and jobs to get done. “At different stages of your life, be open to ideas outside of the farm field as a way to have an impact changing our food system. We need women in all positions of agriculture, from the tractor seat to board chairs and everything in between."
Faye Jones, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), Spring Valley, Wisconsin
A Surge in Specialty Foods
Research from Sullivan Higdon & Sink’s Food Think, “A Fresh Look at Organic and Local” in 2012 found that 70 percent of consumers would like to know more about where food comes from. “The vast majority of consumers (79%) would like to buy more local food, and almost 6 in 10 (59%) consumers say it’s important when buying food that it be locally sourced, grown or made.”
Buying local also supports a healthy community economy. According to the Institute for Self Reliance, in a comparison study of local and national chain retailers, local stores return a total of 52 percent revenue to the local economy, but it’s only 14 percent for the chain guys. Similarly, local independent restaurants recirculate an average of 79 percent of their revenue locally, compared to
Love your aged green peppercorn brick cheese, pickled beans, and blueberry ginger flavored kombucha? You’re not alone. These types of products fall under “specialty foods,” a booming industry experiencing 22 percent growth between 2010 and 2012 and topping $85 billion, according to the Specialty Food Association.
Two of the most likely characteristics of new specialty food products coming onto market are gluten free (38%) and convenient/easy to prepare items (37%), according to the Specialty Food Association. An easy way to break into specialty foods is small-scale, value-added processing in your farm kitchen under cottage food laws, state legislation that authorizes specific non-hazardous food items made in home kitchens for sale at certain public venues. More on this in Chapter 5. Cottage food businesses are covered in detail in my book Homemade for Sale: How to Set Up and Market a Food Business from Your Home Kitchen.
Don’t let the epicurean sheen of specialty foods lead you to think it’s high-end foodie fluff. Many possibilities exist to create a specialty food business that exemplifies your values and can be a platform for your educational mission.
“This isn’t just boutique or gourmet food artistry,” says Jordan Champagne, who with her husband, Todd, started Happy Girl Kitchen in 2002, now based in Pacific Grove, California. “Preserving the local harvest is about food security and rediscovering how to eat local year round. My love for preserving the harvest came to life when Todd and I lived for a summer on a family fjord farm in Norway, tending the garden, milking the cow, and preserving food,” she reminisces. “Over there, I realized that if you wanted to eat the fruits of the short summer year round, you needed to preserve them for the long winter.”
After that overseas experience, the Champagnes launched Fearless Pickles back home along the central coast of California. They did it all: raised the cucumbers, pickled and packaged them, and coordinated sales. “It quickly became too much to do, and I realized we’re surrounded by such amazing farmers growing in abundance that it’s much easier and more efficient to buy direct from them, especially women growers like my dear friend, Jamie Collins at Serendipity Farms.”
Champagne reinvented the business into what is now Happy Girl Kitchen and Café, specializing in crafting value-added products in jars, using local California produce purchased directly from farmers. She’s also keen on using imperfect produce that might otherwise end up in compost bin or tossed to the farm animals.
“Think of the kitchen as a place to play, experiment, and have fun,” Champagne advises fledgling farmers and specialty food entrepreneurs. “Pair unusual flavors together and see what happens.” That’s solid advice coming from Champagne, as the sweet and savory combination in her apricot chili jam scored a Good Food Award, dubbed the “Oscars of the food movement.”
Part kitchen, part retail store, and part café, Happy Girl Kitchen and Café creates a community spot for those seeking these food connections. Champagne warmly welcomes and chats with customers in this lively 2,700-square-foot space where she and her staff pump out dozens of products as well as hosting preservation workshops and pop-up dinners. “It’s about building a community around your food passions,” she sums up. “That’s the cornerstone of any successful food business committed to sustainable and organic agriculture.
Two things we soil sisters love: our farms and sharing that connection to the land and food with others. Make agritourism part of your business plan and you’ve hit the industry trend jackpot. On-farm experiences are hot in demand, particularly farm-stay B&B experiences and farm-to-table meal service.
Many city folks love to pay for the “play farm” experience, and savvy farmers are stepping up to the demand. From 2007 to 2012 the number of US farms catering to city folk went up by 42 percent, bringing in more than $700 million, according to the latest Census of Agriculture. Since 2007, the amount of money brought in under agritourism rose by 24 percent.
Travelers increasingly seek authentic, slice-of-life experiences. If that slice happens to be pie served on a farm and made with homegrown rhubarb, all the better. In a study by National Geographic Traveler and the Travel Industry Association of America, 55.1 million US travelers are classified as “geo-tourists,” travelers who are interested in nature, culture, and heritage tourism. Similarly, according to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), about 17 million US travelers consider environmental factors when patronizing businesses, and about half prefer trips with small-scale accommodations operated by locals.
“Farm stays and female farmers go together like the homegrown bacon and eggs she’ll be serving,” explains Jan Joannides, co-founder and executive director of Renewing the Countryside (RTC), a nonprofit dedicated to championing and supporting rural and farm-based businesses. “Farm stays showcase our natural female knack for hosting with warm hospitality, which makes an on-farm lodging experience a natural fit for women farmers looking to get into agritourism.”
“I’d say 90 to 95 percent of the farm stays run in this country are operated by women,” shares Scottie Jones, founder of Farm Stay U.S., a national portal connecting travelers to farm experiences and supporting farm-stay start-ups with resources and education. “The farm may be co-owned by a partner or spouse, but the job of running the farm-stay operation is taken on by the woman, as hospitality falls more naturally to women, even in this day and age.”
Jones estimates that about 1,000 working farms, ranches, and vineyards in the US offer lodging. She runs Leaping Lamb Farm in Alsea, Oregon, a lamb operation that also offers a farm-stay cottage rental. Jones founded Farm Stay U.S. to help make these experiences more mainstream travel options, like they are throughout Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world.
Increasingly, these travelers also want more than just a farmstead bed. They want an on-farm dinner too, opening up a wide menu of opportunity to include some form of food service in your operation. Over the past ten years, the role food plays in the travel industry has grown tremendously, fueled by everything from Food Paradise and No Reservations shows on the Travel Channel to the swarm of tempting food photos invading social media feeds. According to the World Food Travel Association, travelers increasingly seek out the unique and the flavorful, with dining consistently rated as one of the top three favorite tourist activities. These travel and food enthusiasts are particularly seeking authentic agricultural experiences and “insider” perspectives, something a farmer and farm-direct dining experience can offer.
On-farm meals dovetail with the 2015 Culinary Forecast by the National Restaurant Association in over half of their top ten food trends, including the top three:
• Locally sourced meat and seafood
• Locally grown produce
• Environmental sustainability
Further down the top ten list and also applicable to women farmers are
• Natural ingredients/minimally processed food
• Hyper-local sourcing (for example, restaurants making artisanal items in-house, such as ketchup, pickles, and cured meats).
• Farm/estate-branded items
Local Markets with Moxie
As you decide the direction of your farm livelihood, perhaps you also have flexibility as to where you land geographically. While some of us may already own property or come with regional ties to a specific area, others may be open to other parts of the country.
With farmland prices increasing (doubling from 2000 to 2010, according to the USDA) you’ll want to be strategic in where you go so that you can afford the acreage and still have access to a larger urban market if needed for sales.
“There still are some US cities that offer both affordable farmland within driving distance and that haven’t been over-saturated with small-scale producers and CSAs,” shares Rebecca Thistlethwaite, a farming consultant and author of Farms with a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business and the new book, The New Livestock Farmers: The Business of Raising and Selling Ethical Meat. “Look beyond the known foodie hot spots like Madison, Wisconsin, where some markets have a five-year wait for a farmers’ market booth, and be a part of a smaller but growing local food market that will more readily embrace what you have to offer.”
College towns have a well-educated populace that are often seeking better, fresher sources of food and have incomes to support that, explains Thistlethwaite, who determined her list of the eight hot-spots based on her travels and book research:
• Lawrence, Kansas
• Mobile, Alabama
• Moscow, Idaho
• Gainesville, Florida
• Lincoln, Nebraska
• Grand Junction, Colorado
• Fayetteville, Arkansas
• St. Louis, Missouri
“Aside from St. Louis, these are also towns under 200,000 people, where I think it is easier to build community and strong social networks, which is essential to building a solid business.” Likewise, most of these places still have a strong agricultural heritage, which makes it easier to find things like tractor mechanics, equipment rentals, grain mills, slaughter houses, and other agricultural infrastructure.
“Remember, there are many places in this country where land is more affordable and the regional populace is supportive of diversified market gardeners and pasture-based animal producers,” Thistlethwaite adds. “We need to get away from our obsession with the two coasts and start feeding the rest of the country good food.”
“Understandably, hip food towns like Asheville, North Carolina, or Portland, Oregon, or the San Francisco Bay Area have appeal, and it’s alluring to be in a place where there’s a lot of people like yourself,” adds Thistlethwaite. “But if you’re willing to move to an area where the local food movement is more nascent or less known, you could ride that early wave and both create a strong business as well as help contribute directly to the community leadership.” As in any business, it helps to be an early adopter, carve out your market niche, build customer loyalty, and maintain it over the long term. “Coming in later after the market is thoroughly saturated can be tough,” she sums up.
We’ll go into more detail on specific business ideas and how to start them in Chapters 5 and 6, but for now, consider this a foundation of ideas on which to build your farm livelihood. Like the weather forecast, life and business don’t come with guarantees. We can, however, research and assess likelihoods. Celebrate the good news that you’re coming to the food and farming scene as the movement is rolling. Enjoy the ride!
Reprinted with permission from Soil Sisters by Lisa Kivirist and published by New Society Publishers, 2016. Buy this book from our store: Soil Sisters.